Cultural Life Slowly Resuming in Turkmenistan
With a production of Shakespeare's "Othello" and even an opera, cultural life in Turkmenistan is slowly coming back after grinding to a halt under the rule of eccentric despot Saparmurat Niyazov.
Niyazov, who died in 2006, notoriously ordered the closing of the Central Asian state's theatres in 2001 and now his successor Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov is seeing to a very cautious relaxing of control.
It is however still Turkmenistan, a nation whose isolation can only be compared with North Korea. The relaxation is limited and art continues to be fully exploited to promote the president's own personality.
Niyazov, who called himself Turkmenbashi (Father of all Turkmen), presided over one of the most bizarre personality cults in postwar history, which extended to erecting a golden statue of himself that rotated to face the sun.
Berdymukhamedov, who is known as Arkadag (Protector), has embarked on tentative reforms even if critics say he is merely replacing one personality cult with another.
The most notable example of the new permissiveness in Turkmenistan is the production of "Othello" at the Russian Dramatic Theatre, which has been playing to packed houses.
"Finally, after 10 years they have started to allow theatre production of world classics," said pensioner Anna Leonidovna, 58, a self-confessed theatre buff.
"Until recently all there was were events in praise of the Turkmenbashi and they brought in soldiers from the barracks and students from state universities to fill up the halls," she said.
At another venue, the Dramatic Theatre, a play is on by Russian playwright Alexander Volodin with music including the surprising choice of French electronic composer Jean Michel Jarre.
--- 'Years of oblivion' ---
The culture vultures of Ashgabat currently have just one opera on view -- a revival of the Eastern-themed folkloric "Layla and Majnun" -- but for many this in itself is something astonishing.
"It was like I grew wings when the president ordered me to put on opera after so many years of oblivion," said legendary Turkmen people's artist, opera singer and actress, Maya Kuliyeva, 90, who directed the opera.
She started working in the theatre when the first Turkmen theatre opened in 1941 under the Soviet Union and endured the closure and even demolition of her theatre after Niyazov's fateful order of 2001.
"It seems that in the last years we lost a huge place of Turkmen culture," admitted museums worker Ishanguly Dovletov, 55.
But Ashgabat is not yet home to a normal flourishing cultural life. Ballet, a proud mainstay of theatres throughout the former Soviet Union, is still banned.
Censorship is also ever present and Berdymukhamedov openly created a government committee whose aim is to "estimate the artistic value of creative works and allow permission for them to be published, put on show or filmed."
"Your task is to show in full depth the grandiose scope, essence and aims of the transformations in Turkmenistan," he told cultural representatives on signing the decree that created the committee.
Berdymukhamedov has also been known to criticize the low quality of artistic works and has demanded that "our epoch goes down in Turkmen history with new masterpieces of art and culture".
And the president, a dentist who rose to the top of his profession and then the political elite, has not been afraid of contributing to Turkmenistan's cultural heritage himself.
With his own pen, he has written no less than six best-selling books -- on horses, carpets, medicine and a memoir about his granddad.
As if that was not enough for a busy head of state, he has played the accordion, guitar and synthesizer on national television, singing songs that he wrote himself.
The guitar and the accordion were promptly put into the national museum of Turkmenistan as "national heritage of huge cultural value".
--- 'Opposition sites are all blocked' ---
"Of course ungenerous types accuse him of musical plagiarism but who in Turkmenistan knows about this," a Western diplomat commented with a degree of sarcasm.
"The opposition websites are all blocked in Turkmenistan and do not spoil the picture of pan-national admiration of the president's talents," the diplomat added.
Turkmen poets have also published front-page tributes to the president and his beloved stable of horses in government mouthpiece newspapers.
A two-meter model of what one day will be the first public monument to Berdymukhamedov is already on display in the Ashgabat sculpture museum. Unsurprisingly, the white marble sculpture shows him on a horse.
"This stunning image came to me unexpectedly in my creative imagination, put inspiration into the soul and brought unprecedented force to its creation," said the sculptor Saragt Babayev.
Retired university lecturer Serdar Aga, 65, thoughtfully gave his conclusions on the process of reform in Turkmenistan. "We have a saying, a long road starts from a small path.
"If this leads to genuine reforms or just promises to carry them out, time will tell," he said.